Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Secchione pieno di parole*

(See below for translation of Secchione pieno di parole)*

Peter Pezzelli’s Francesca’s Kitchen, appearing now in Select Editions, has started me thinking about all the many contributions Italian culture has made to our culture. First and foremost, of course, is food. As everyone who has read about Rhode Island’s most daunting fictional kitchen diplomat—Francesca Campanile—knows: Italian food has a special power to win over hearts and minds by means of the dinner table.

But that’s not all. The Italian language, which is famously musical to the ear and suited to poetry and opera, as well as cuisine, has enriched the English language with a cornucopia of borrowings. Everyone knows spaghetti (which, by the way, means “little strings”), pasta, and ravioli are Italian words we use in everyday English. But here are a few naturalized verbal immigrants from the Old World that may surprise you.

Malaria, a disease transmitted by mosquitoes, was originally associated with the bad air—mala aria in Italian—around swamps and marshes.

Prima donna, is Italian for first lady.

Buffoon, someone who is clownishly foolish, comes from the Italian word for jester, buffone.

Cartoons are so popular in America you might think the term is native born. It’s not. The word comes from the Italian cartone, meaning a sketch, drawing or caricature.

Zany, as in wild, unpredictable, funny is one of my favorites Italian terms. The word, probably Venetian in origin, comes from a nickname for John, or Giovanni in Italian. When you think about it “Johnny” is not all that far, linguistically from Zanni.

You might have noticed that two of these terms refer to clownishness. Now, there is nothing especially clownish about the culture that gave the world the Renaissance. But there is something uniquely funny from Italy. And that is the highly influential native-born improvisational theater called Commedia dell 'arte, which was extremely popular in Europe from the 1400s through the 1700s, and had a lasting influence on Western drama from the works of the Britain's Shakespeare, France’s Molière and, more recently, the Irish-born Samuel Beckett.

*Word Nerd (as admitted in previous postings)


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